• Mark Brafield

The giraffe's neck

Much of my time in my consulting room is spent explaining to clients how the conflicts in our minds often result from the drives of our primitive minds with their powerful forces of survival, honed over tens of millions of years, for which our civilised, rational minds - a mere 200,000 years old - are no match.

I was explaining this to a client one day when he asked, very reasonably, why it was that Mother Nature had, in that case, hung on to our primitive minds instead of getting rid of them in the software upgrade. It was a very good question, and one that I have wondered about ever since.

The answer was given to me in Paul Gilbert's excellent book 'The Compassionate Mind' (Constable, Re-issued January 2010) in which he explains how evolution is a process of adapting, in his useful phrase to 'the flow of life'.

Adaptation means that Mother Nature can only work with what she has got already. She cannot 'delete' earlier software. And adaptation means, in the terms of the old joke, that you do not have to be able to run faster than the wolf that is chasing you, you just need to be able to run faster than your friend.

It is for this reason that every adaptation brings with it both advantages and disadvantages. The example he gives is the giraffe's neck. It is a particular adaptation to give the giraffe the advantage of being able to eat the leaves high up on the tree beyond the reach of other animals. But it brings with it the disadvantage that it is much harder to drink water at ground level.

In the same way, the primitive responses of anxiety or 'fight or flight' are excellent survival tools in a dangerous environment, but they carry with them the disadvantage that an over-sensitive response, or a response that, for some reason, remains stuck in the 'on' position can cause so much distress to us in our modern lives.